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Black students' families settle suit alleging excessive force at Pa. school

Written by Claudia Lauer/The Associated Press | Oct 9, 2018 5:08 PM
Black students lawsuit Woodland Hills.jpg

In this May 12, 2017, photo, Burgundi Russell, a plaintiff in a civil rights lawsuit against Woodland Hills High School, poses for a picture in Pittsburgh, Pa. Russell alleges that a school resource officer, Steve Shaulis, punched and knocked out a tooth of her son earlier this year. The Pittsburgh-area school reached a settlement with the students' families on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Dake Kang)

(Pittsburgh) -- A Pittsburgh-area school accused of creating a culture of verbal abuse and excessive force that allowed resource officers to shock students with stun guns and body slam them reached a settlement Tuesday in a civil rights lawsuit.

Attorneys for the five black former students and their parents, who filed the lawsuit in August 2017, said a federal judge still has to approve the settlement petition. The lawsuit alleges white school administrators had engaged in discriminatory behavior against the black students, some of whom say they were also discriminated against because they have emotional and behavioral issues. It alleges false criminal charges were filed against several students to cover up alleged physical abuse and excessive force.

The former students will split more than $500,000 if the settlement is approved. It was unclear what the individual settlement amounts would be.

The attorneys said the settlement comes with a commitment from a new high school principal and a new superintendent to end violence toward students.

"All children-regardless of race, gender or disability are entitled to an education free of violence and abuse. Not only fundamental constitutional rights but common sense underlies that promise," attorney Timothy O'Brien wrote in a statement.

The lawsuit filed against the school district, the Churchill Borough, Dynasty Security, former principal Kevin Murray, former superintendent Alan Johnson and former school resource officer Stephen Shaulis, cites five different incidents, at least four of which were partially captured on the school's security cameras.

A video from 2009 shows Shaulis shoving a student into a locker without apparent physical provocation, then shocking the student with a stun gun and arresting him.

One in 2010 shows a behavioral specialist lifting a student up against a locker and slamming him into the ground, breaking the student's wrist. The student was charged with aggravated assault and disorderly conduct, the lawsuit said, but charges were withdrawn after a district attorney reviewed the video.

In 2017, Shaulis was accused of punching and knocking out the tooth of a 14-year-old freshman accused of stealing a cellphone. Another video surfaced shortly after of Shaulis body-slamming a 15-year-old student in 2015 and shocking him with a stun gun.

Black students woodland hills high school.jpg

In this May 12, 2017, photo, Kevin Murray, former principal of Woodland Hill High School, pauses during an interview with the Associated Press in Churchill, Pa. Murray was sued by the guardians of five black children alleging a pattern of abuse and false charges against students. (AP Photo/Dake Kang)

An audio recording was also released of former principal Kevin Murray allegedly threatening to punch a 14-year-old special education student in the face and "knock your ... teeth down your throat."

New school district superintendent James Harris said Shaulis is no longer working at the school, but said he did not know his employment status. Phone messages left with the Churchill Borough Police Department and an attorney who represented Shaulis were not returned Tuesday. The district attorney's office declined to charge Murray, who resigned shortly before the lawsuit was filed.

The tapes sparked outrage among parents over the district's reliance on resource officers, and they confronted school board members and held protests. Both the attorneys for the students and Harris credited the community reaction for changes at the district.

Harris, who was hired in August, said the district has tried to change the atmosphere and the relationship between students and school resource officers-- police officers assigned to work at the district's high school and alternative school.

"There has been a huge difference at the high school and a big part of that is the change in leadership, the new principal," he said. "Our disciplinary referrals are way down as a result."

Harris said school resource officers are no longer used to handle disciplinary matters like calling a teacher a name or using inappropriate language, which before landed students in front of judges instead of in parent-teacher conferences. He said the officers are only called in when the principal decides they're needed or in cases of outside intruders or school safety threats-- none of which has been necessary so far this school year.

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